Green as far as the eye can see – that is what you get at L’Éléphant Vert, the newish offshoot of the Luang Prabang restaurant L’Éléphant, which as you might have guessed from the name, specialises in French-Laotian fusion. Situated on a back street near the city’s old town, you’d have to be in the know to find this place, and that is the way the establishment has operated for the last years, by word of mouth and on the pages of select travel guides.
Whereas the main kitchen whips up some of the town’s best coq au vin and duck breasts for discerning omnivores, the month-old L’Éléphant Vert caters to the vegetarians and the vegans, or foodies who are all about the holistic lifestyle. Some 20 people can fit in this small quiet room. There is a lone recipe book on the shelf, a copy of Diana Von Cranach’s Rawfully Good: Living Flavours of Southeast Asia, and I later find out that the Cordon Bleu-trained chef, who also developed the charming menu at Bali’s popular Puri Ganesha Villas, had a large part to play in conceptualising the restaurant.
There are several vegetarian and vegan tasting menus starting from an affordable 120,000 kip (approximately USD$15) for lunch, and they are really quite splendid. There is a baked eggplant dish that combines mozzarella and feta cheese with diced onions and fresh crushed tomatoes that have been boiled down. A meat-free hit of umami, if you must. You can also start with a sweet pumpkin soup with a lick of coconut cream mixed in. There’s a hint of kaffir lime to stimulate your appetite.
At this point, the manager tells us that the restaurant grows their own produce at a farm on the outskirts of town. The chefs are local too, completely born and bred in Luang Prabang. They do a mean baked cannelloni stuffed with chopped oyster mushrooms in cream sauce. It is essentially a creamy mushroom pasta, cooked to a tender al dente. The restaurant serves this with a wet salad (as with all eateries in Laos, right?) of flavourful stock-boiled spinach, French beans, carrots, and radish.
On the vegan side of things, you’ll start off with an elixir of turmeric, lime, tamarind, and a bit of palm sugar. If you have been to Bali, you might be reminded of traditional Indonesian herbal medicine (also known as jamu), which uses a lot of turmeric. A gritty soup dish of mushroom bits and coriander comes next, with some mint thrown into the mix. In the middle is a mountain of mushrooms and crunchy bamboo shoot, in case you find the lack of ‘meatiness’ to be disconcerting.
It appears that the presentation for the vegan creations here is better than that of their vegetarian counterparts. The gorgeous tomato carpaccio is plump and juicy, topped with assorted flowers picked from around Luang Prabang and a fragrant vanilla sauce made with ground vanilla beans. And then there is the stunning Garden of Eden salad, which features pretty butterfly pea flowers, shreds of red cabbage, sun-dried tomatoes, black glutinous rice, and tomato cubes with the same vanilla sauce from before to play off the sourness. And yes, they taste as good as they look, relying on quality produce that shine on their own.
Rosella and hibiscus infusions have become a staple in Luang Prabang, and the chefs do this with a floral sorbet that pairs amazingly with the slight acidity of a pineapple carpaccio; not forgetting a sprinkle of basil for the mandatory Laos herbiness. And with dessert, that cements L’Éléphant Vert as one of the best vegan restaurants anywhere that I’ve stepped into. In a town increasingly filled with people looking for clean food, the clever cooking that lets quality produce taste like themselves will surely stand out.
L’Éléphant Vert is located at Luang Prabang, Laos 06000, p. +856 71 252 482. Open daily 12pm – 2.30pm, 6pm – 10pm.